Italy's northwest region of Piedmont packs a huge punch when it comes to gastronomy. An area that has been dubbed the industrial heart of Italy, one could be forgiven for thinking it's lackluster and boring. Instead it boasts award-winning wines–from barolo to nebbiolo to the sweet moscato d'asti, the largest concentration of Michelin star restaurants in all of Italy and was where "slow food," the movement which honors local produce and promotion of the heritage and culture of food, was born.
What Piedmont produces, it exports to the world. From world class wines, crissini (bread sticks) and fine chocolate including the praline-like gianduiotto and household names like Ferrero, of the Rocher chocolates and Nutella fame. And with a couple of other well-known brands like Fiat, Eataly and Martini vermouth, this region wears quality and international success like a badge.
If this wasn't enough, the town of Alba is home to the most highly coveted treasure of the food world–the white truffle. Part of the fungus family, truffles grow underground and come in the black or white variety. Experts say that the origins of truffles are uncertain and that they could have evolved from a defect of nature, one which the culinary world will be forever grateful. In fact, the white truffle of Alba is sought out from fine dining establishments worldwide with restaurants from New York
to Hong Kong
paying top dollar for them to be exported immediately once they're found during its season (annually across October and November). Hunting them is an art form given their rarity, hence the $850+ per 100 grams price tag.
While black truffles have an earthy flavor and pungent aroma, the white truffle of Alba is more delicate with notes of garlic, honey, butter and earth or forest. It is also more perishable and once harvested, they should be eaten within a week.
In some parts of the world, qualified truffle seekers hunt with pigs, but in Italy they rely on a breed of lake dog from the Romagna area of Italy called the Lagotto Romagnolo. In Alba and surrounds, Giacomo Sperone and Giuseppe from Il Profumo della Notte
take people into the UNESCO protected Langhe woods on a hunt. Like most truffle hunters, the sport has been in Giuseppe's family for three generations and he has a nationally recognized license.
The best time for truffle hunting is at night and requires a synchronized effort between dog and hunter. Giuseppe has a special relationship with Luna, even communicating with him in thick Piedmontese dialect as they navigate the woods and a lot of sniffing and spraying of dirt and leaves takes place. He says, "by now I recognize her behavior and know how to interpret even the slightest variation in his character."
Quick Alba Tips
When to Go
The annual White Truffle Fair (October 11 - November 15, 2015) is obviously a draw card but the town gets packed and truffle prices are at their maximum. November is the best month if you want to try white truffle but others are available throughout the rest of the year.
How and Where to Eat Truffles
In the home of the white diamond
(as the people of Alba refer to it), the best way to eat white truffles lies in simplicity. Shaved over cooked eggs or served with Piedmontese egg pasta, tajarin
. During truffle season locals say only select restaurants treat truffles with respect. For Michelin star dining head to Piazza Duomo or La Piola, La Libera for contemporary Piedmontese cuisine and La Bottega del Vicoletto
(with its seven tables!) for your family run fix.
Where to Buy Truffles
Tartufi & Co
in the center of Alba stock everything from truffles in a jar to truffle cream. Here you can buy, as well as taste, a range of truffle products.
Where to Stay
Located at the entrance to Alba town, the B&B Le Torre Sulle Terrazze
offers a bed and breakfast for two at €90. The owner Lorenzo is a font of local food knowledge and offers each guest a degustation card which entitles them to five free food tastings in the town center. From locally produced salumi
to wine and cheese.
What to Do
Go on a truffle hunt with Il Profume della Notte
. Unlike many simulated tours in the region, they are qualified to take you on a real hunt. Truffle hunting can be done from mid-September to end of November and sometimes December (season dependent). Prices for a one hour hunt for two people start at €120.